Abortion Could be Health Bill Deal Breaker in House
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi keeps insisting that the abortion fight isn’t relevant in the health care debate.
Try telling that to her rank-and-file.
Despite the speaker’s repeated denials, it looks like the final act in the year-long health care fight could once again come down to abortion – so much so that Pelosi invited a group of women’s rights groups to the Capitol on Thursday, along with a number of her closest allies, for a preliminary discussion to strategize about the way ahead.
And a day after Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said he’s willing to derail reform if the bill didn’t block federal funding of abortion, the rhetoric on both sides of the issue was fierce – suggesting that even Pelosi’s usual ability to bridge her diverse caucus might not be enough to salvage President Barack Obama’s top legislative priority.
“There’s really no strategy at this point on how to move forward,” a Democratic aide in the House said Friday, but leaders are talking to Stupak about abortion “as we’re talking to other people about things that may be of concern.”
The debate also shifted to the Senate’s language on abortion funding – which could survive into the final bill — with both sides calling it a deal-breaker.
Planned Parenthood alerted its vast network of supporters Friday to contact their members of Congress to “say no to any anti-choice side deals with Bart Stupak” and fix the Senate provision.
Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, called the Senate anti-abortion language “the most severe restriction on private health insurance coverage for abortion in 35 years.”
Douglas Johnson, the legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, called the Senate bill “the most pro-abortion single piece of legislation that has ever come to the House floor for a vote, since Roe v. Wade.
“Any House member who votes for the Senate health bill is casting a career-defining pro-abortion vote,” said Johnson, the group’s legislative director, in a clear warning shot for socially conservative Democrats. “A House member who votes for the Senate bill would forfeit a plausible claim to pro-life credentials.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) met with Stupak on Thursday, starting a conversation that could shape the path of reform. The former state trooper authored an amendment to the House bill that bars anyone receiving subsidies through the new insurance exchange from purchasing coverage for elective abortions. Without a final package, it’s too early to tell where the votes are, but Hoyer seemed to acknowledge that Stupak, true to his threat, has the votes to derail the broader bill.
At the same time, some of the speaker’s closest allies huddled Thursday to fight this next attempt to add Stupak’s language to a final package, aides said.
For decades, Democrats have been more divided on the question of abortion than their Republican counterparts. Generations of Democrats from the South and blue-collar enclaves in the Midwest and Northeast have followed the dictates of church leaders over those of their more liberal colleagues.
This year, the issue is particularly acute for Democrats from places like Ohio and Pennsylvania whose districts have large Catholic populations because the church’s political arm opposes the restrictions that were included in last year’s Senate bill. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops exerted hefty influence on the House bill last fall and forced Pelosi to accept much tougher restrictions than she favored in the form of Stupak’s amendment. That process left much of her caucus angry in the wake of such an otherwise-historic accomplishment.
The speaker made that concession four months ago, when the issue still wasn’t on everyone’s radar. Outside groups have used the intervening period to make sure everyone knows the fight will be about this time.
Pressure from groups, like National Right to Life and the Catholic Bishops, make it harder for the speaker and her leadership team to pick up the votes they need to pass a bill.
On the other side, Catholics who support abortion rights blasted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for wielding such a heavy hand in the initial debate and posing a potential threat this time around.
“Interference by the US Catholic bishops in healthcare reform does not help women,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. ” The bishops claim that this is an issue of ‘conscience.’ However, in seeking to impose their views, the bishops show no regard for the consciences of millions of women in the United States who want the ability to prevent unintended pregnancies or have an abortion when they need it.”
The two sides have been debating the substance of the Senate’s language for months. Abortion-rights advocates still don’t like the Senate language because they’re concerned the new restrictions — which require insurers to set up separate accounts for every policyholder who opts for elective abortion coverage — will discourage insurance companies from covering the procedure. But they prefer it by leaps and bounds over the Stupak amendment.
Supporters of abortion rights, like the speaker, insist that no federal funds can be used to pay for elective abortions under guidelines set out by the Senate bill because insurance companies are specifically required to keep money in separate accounts.
But abortion opponents argue that insurance companies will never comply with the fix because money is fungible. They also argue that the subsidies themselves make it possible for someone to buy coverage he or she wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
“The so-called abortion limits that are in the Senate bill are all very narrow, riddled with loopholes, or booby-trapped to expire,” Johnson said.
Changing the Senate language at this point could prove troublesome for leaders, even if they are able to broker a compromise. The abortion section of the bill likely won’t qualify under the rules for reconciliation — since it doesn’t have a direct dollar impact on overall cost — so Democrats would either need to muster 60 votes in the Senate to override the parliamentarian or draft a third bill with fixes in it that would also need 60 votes for passage. Both would require Republican support, making each a very heavy lift for party leaders, even if the Catholic Church lends a hand.
The two sides have had something of an unspoken truce for years after the Hyde Amendment prohibited federal funds from being spent on abortion, except in cases where rape or incest occurred or when the mother’s life is in danger. That détente came to an abrupt end last fall when the issue erupted anew, much to the chagrin of leading Democrats.
Pelosi now bristles when the question comes up, snapping at reporters Thursday during her weekly media briefing.
“This is not about abortion!,” she insisted. “This is a bill about providing quality, affordable health care for all Americans.”
“I will not have it turned into a debate on (abortion),” she said in response to a follow-up question. “Let me say it clearly: we all agree on the three following things. … One is there is no federal funding for abortion. That is the law of the land. It is not changed in this bill. There is no change in the access to abortion. No more or no less: It is abortion neutral in terms of access or diminution of access. And, third, we want to pass a health care bill.”
Earlier in the day, Stupak once again claimed that at least 11 fellow Democrats were planning to vote against the broader bill if the abortion language wasn’t change. But hours later, he expressed optimism that the two sides could work things out after a Thursday session with Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a principal author of the bill.
Later that day, Hoyer acknowledged that this issue could be make or break for the broader bill. He said party leaders have considered assembling a third bill that would incorporate changes, like a fix to abortion.
“I talked to Mr. Stupak today and I am going to be talking to him next week. And he indicated he wanted to have some discussions with people, and I will do that. So there are a number of different ways that can be addressed.”
This article originally appeared in Politico.